The Beijing Proposed ‘China-India Ocean Council’
An interesting initiative emanating from China’s recent Foreign Ministerial visits to East Africa, Maldives and Sri Lanka has been the proposed ‘China-Indian Ocean Council’ – presumably a collection of Indian Ocean countries who would form a collective discussion bloc not unlike the Cooperation Between China & Eastern European Countries (CEEC) which was established in 2012.
The proposal has raised eyebrows – and concerns – with India, who has traditionally viewed the Indian Ocean as under its orbit, and quasi institutionalized it in 2019 with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs forming the ‘Indian Ocean Division’, effectively a reforming of India’s previous distinctions between the Indian Ocean, Eastern Africa and Southern African regions. An MEA official was quoted at the time as saying “This makes sense as even these island nations did not necessarily want to be clubbed with Africa and had a separate identity.”
India’s ability to organize trade blocs however has been patchy. It is a member of the BIMSTEC, SAFTA and SAARC blocs, but neither cover the complete Indian Ocean region and in any event, the trade benefits they bring have been muted by constant bickering over specific terminologies as concerns tariff reductions, and to some extent India’s own market protectionism and some regional bullying. These have not been either as inclusive nor as trade beneficial as they could – or should have been, leading certainly smaller members of these blocs to consider alternatives. China’s proposal therefore – which has still to be formalized – is of huge regional interest.
The Indian Ocean is over 70 million square km, and includes all of South and Southeast Asia, Western Asia, Northeast, East and Southern Africa and Australia. It is at present unclear whether Beijing intends the proposed Council to include all Indian Ocean nations, which would include pushback from Australia and India to name just two. But it could push for a smaller, island nations Council, which would include Zanzibar, The Seychelles, The Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar, The Maldives, Sri Lanka and arguably, Singapore.
Selected mainland members in East Africa could include Djibouti, Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa, while the Gulf would include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. South Asian mainland countries would include India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste.
Such a forum would fit in with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and introduce a perhaps more coordinated regional development platform. None really exists at the present time.
There is more likely to be enthusiasm for the forum that push-back, although India and Australia will be highly critical. But then neither have really done anything to unite the Indian Ocean either, and a cooperation forum would provide benefits in terms of improved digital communication issues, better tracking of ships and other vessels. It has to be remembered that none of the Indian Ocean nations, including Australia, have been able to find the doomed Malaysian Airlines jet MH370 that disappeared back in March 2014 – nearly six years ago. A coordination and communications blank space is obviously in need of technology to resolve this issue – a situation that China will be keen to assist with. Critics will have their say, but on the other hand, do we really want another MH370 or additions to the 38 vessels that were wrecked in Indian Ocean accidents just last year alone?
With most of these nations – with the exception of Australia and India – already signed up to the BRI, a forum to provide a discussion platform to bring the Indian Ocean into a single, manageable and coordinated entity appears to be a good idea. It will be interesting to see what format this takes.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists British and Foreign Investment into Asia and has 28 offices throughout China, India, the ASEAN nations and Russia. For strategic and business intelligence concerning China’s Belt & Road Initiative please email email@example.com or visit us at www.dezshira.com